The Wine Next Door: A Manhattanite Discovers the Beauty of Finger Lakes Wines
Every so often this native Manhattanite needs to be reminded that there's more to New York than my little island. The five boroughs that form the Big Apple may get a disproportionate share of the glory but the Empire State is a sprawling and multi-faceted tapestry. Home to concrete jungles and Mother Nature's majestic masterpieces, New York State has it all, including acres of vineyards and a vibrant wine industry. And the Finger Lakes is one of New York's most exciting wine regions. From indigenous grapes to varieties from far-flung corners of the globe, winemakers and grape growers from the Finger Lakes have earned critical acclaim for their creativity and commitment to quality.
Spread like fingers across central New York, a Native American legend attributes the creation of the Finger Lakes to a divine architect: "The Creator looked upon this land with special favor and reached down to bless it, leaving the imprint of His hand, hence, the Finger Lakes." Geologically speaking, the 11 Finger Lakes were formed as the last ice age ended and enormous holes were left behind by the receding glaciers. Finger Lakes wine country is centered around four main lakes with Native American names: Canandaigua (“The Chosen Spot” or “The Chosen Place”), Keuka (“Canoe Landing” or “Crooked Lake”), Seneca (“Place of the Stone”), and Cayuga (“Boat Landing”).
There is no shortage of breathtaking lake views in the Finger Lakes region but these water sources aren't just eye candy - they play an important role in moderating the climate of the vineyards - "cooling in the summer, warming in the winter, and sheltering the vines from temperature extremes" according to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. The region's natural resources combined with talented winemakers make a formidable alliance.
I'm definitely guilty of having treated wines from the Finger Lakes like the cute boy next door that I never really paid attention to. Surely, a wine from my own neck of the woods couldn't be as exciting as those from lauded old world regions and trendy new world locations abroad? My recent (and first) visit to the Finger Lakes proved me absolutely wrong. The wines next door are pretty intriguing. From multi-generational family owned wineries with deep roots in the region's viticultural history to more recent immigrants and transplants, the Finger Lakes has about 140 wineries and tasting rooms, each with a unique story.
Fred Frank and his daughter Meaghan represent the 3rd and 4th generations of the world-renowned and family-owned Dr. Konstantin Frank winery.
It isn't an overstatement to say that Dr. Konstantin Frank revolutionized winemaking and ignited the "Vinifera Revolution" in the Finger Lakes. Armed with a Ph.D in viticulture and an innovative mind, Dr. Frank immigrated to the United States from Europe in 1951. Naysayers told him that the region's cold climate made it impossible to cultivate Vitis Vinifera varieties from Europe but Dr. Frank proved them wrong. His pioneering technique of grafting Vitis Vinifera onto native root stock created healthy grapevines and set into the motion the Finger Lakes' destiny as an acclaimed wine region. Cool-climate grapes, such as Riesling and Pinot Noir, do exceptionally well in the Finger Lakes but Dr. Frank's successful early experiments with 60 different varieties provided a blueprint for the diversity of vinifera grapes grown in the region. In 1962, Dr. Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars and his descendants continue his legacy of innovation and quality.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Blanc de Blancs (2013 vintage is available for $29.99)
Few things make me as happy as being greeted with a beautiful glass of bubbly so I knew my visit to Dr. Konstantin Frank was off to a great start! 100% Chardonnay and crafted in the traditional Champagne method, their Blanc de Blancs is fresh and crisp with vibrant flavors of green apple, white pear, chamomile, citrus, and yeasty brioche. Bottle aged on the lees for at least 4 years, it also has a hint of creaminess. An elegant wine that expresses the purity of the Chardonnay grapes and artful winemaking, I dare any Champagne snob to challenge the complexity and beauty of this wine! (I also recommend their 100% Pinot Noir sparkling brut rosé, $34.99, that is pictured at the top of this article.)
During my visit to the Finger Lakes, I encountered many wines that I had never tasted before and Dr. Konstantin Frank Amber Rkatsiteli 2016 ($34.99) was one of the most intriguing. Thousands of years old, Rkatsiteli (pronounced er-ka-tsee-tely) hails from the Republic of Georgia and is one of the oldest known varieties. Found mainly in cool climate regions of Eastern Europe, it also grows beautifully in the Finger Lakes. Crafted to be reminiscent of the Rkatsiteli wines found in Eastern Europe, this charming expression from Dr. Frank is a medium-bodied dry wine with lively acidity, tangible minerality, and flavors of sweet basil, grapefruit and honeysuckle with hints of warm clove.
Red Tail Ridge winemaker Nancy Irelan and her winegrower husband Mike Schnelle are relatively new to the Finger Lakes but have made a big impression. In 2004, they used their life savings to purchase their property on the western shore of Seneca Lake and essentially built their winery from the ground-up. New to the area but a veteran of the wine industry, Nancy left behind her position of Vice President of Viticulture and Enology R&D for a large corporate winery (Gallo) in California to pursue her own winemaking vision in the Finger Lakes. The name Red Tail Ridge pays homage to the pair of hawks that live in the woods surrounding the vineyard. Specializing in limited-production wines, experimentation is an essential part of Red Tail's Ridge's identity. In addition to well-known cool-climate grapes like Riesling and Pinot Noir, Red Tail Ridge also produces obscure varieties like Teroldego. Committed to responsible environmental practices, Red Tail Ridge runs on geothermal energy and implements many other strategies that earned it the distinction of being New York State's first LEED Gold Certified winery.
Can't choose between Riesling and bubbly? Red Tail Ridge Sekt, Sparkling Riesling Extra Brut 2012 ($29.95) beautifully combines the best of both worlds. Produced in the traditional Champagne method, this charming wine is delicate but distinctive with excellent balance between chalky minerality, lively acidity, and vibrant citrus & stone fruit flavors.
Who knew that a relatively obscure red grape from northern Italy would be a perfect match for the terroir and climate of the Finger Lakes? Nancy Irelan did! Red Tail Ridge Teroldego 2015 ($39.95) does right by this gorgeous grape. Different but absolutely approachable, it has rustic but pretty flavors of ripe dark fruit with tinges of herbs and tobacco. Great structure and acidity hint at good aging potential.
Born into a family of farmers and winemakers, Johannes Reinhardt traveled far from his native Germany to forge his own identity as a winemaker. Wine was always a part of Johannes's life but in the Finger Lakes he was able to fulfill his dream of owning his very own small boutique winery. In 2013, Johannes and his wife Imelda opened the doors to their Kemmeter Wines tasting room. Combining his hands-on experience and formal training, Johannes makes wines that are precise and soulful.
In a world full of rosé wines, Kemmeter Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir 2017 ($22) is a welcome addition. Fresh and pure flavors of strawberry, cherry, and watermelon are balanced by a dry finish.
Kemmeter SanSan Riesling 2016 ($35) comes with a heartwarming dedication on the back of the bottle - "SanSan is the Chinese name for the greatest blessing in my life - my wife Imelda." The eye-catching label also hints at another of the winemaker's passions - music. A portion of Johannes's favorite Bach piece, the Third Orchestral Suite, appears on the bottle. The back label cleverly incorporates a musical scale to designate the sweetness of this elegant off-dry Riesling.
When Mel Goldman was in Nepal working with the Peace Corps he probably never imagined that one day he would own a vineyard in upstate New York. After an impressive career working in industrial and agricultural development in developing countries, in 1997 Mel and his wife Dorothee moved to the Finger Lakes and officially started Keuka Lake Vineyards. In the beginning, Mel focused on selling his grapes but inspired by the excellent quality of the Riesling his vines produced, he immersed himself in the art and science of winemaking. After a few test batches for family and friends, Keuka Lake Vineyards produced their first vintage in 2005 with a bit of guidance from a more seasoned winemaker in the region. Winemaking duties are now the domain of Finger Lakes native Staci Nugent. Staci was away on the day of my visit but her credentials (Masters degree in Viticulture and Enology from the University of California at Davis) and stellar wines speak for themselves. I'm not the only one who thinks so -- Keuka Lake Vineyards wines are available in many of New York's most acclaimed restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Keuka Lake Vineyards Upper Eastside Dry Riesling 2017 ($30) is a single vineyard sensation from their 20 Rows Vineyard on the east side of Keuka Lake. Beautifully showing what happens when pristine grapes meet meticulous winemaking, it is crisp and vibrant with fresh citrus flavors. Dry but not austere, the fruit shines through.
Keuka Lake Vineyards Vignoles 2015, Gently Dry ($14) is a wonderful introduction to this relatively obscure grape. A French hybrid grape also known as Ravat 51 in honor of its breeder J.F. Ravat, Vignoles is a cross between Seibel 6905 and Pinot de Corton. Vignoles never really caught on in France but it is produced by several Finger Lakes winemakers. Quite aromatic, Vignoles is known for its citrusy flavors and lively acidity.
Everyone should be drinking more Cabernet Franc and Keuka Lake's is quite delicious. Light and graceful with pretty flavors of ripe raspberry. 2017 vintage is available for $22.
The impact of the Finger Lakes goes far beyond New York state. Oskar Bynke, co-owner of Standing Stone Vineyards and the historic Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, owns a vine nursery that supplies quality grafted grape vines to California and other major wine regions. Their selection includes Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more.
If you're looking for an authentic and top-notch wine getaway, the Finger Lakes won't disappoint. The region has a diverse selection of accommodations, including the rustic yet chic Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars -- my home base during my visit. The rooms are well-appointed and boast priceless views of Seneca Lake.
My first visit to the Finger Lakes certainly won't be my last. I was impressed and inspired by the excellent wines, stunning landscapes, and hard-working winemakers and winery owners that have committed tremendous time and resources into creating a world-class wine destination that defies expectations. I may live in the Big Apple but I thank the Finger Lakes for reminding me that New York state is wine country!
Thank you to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation for inviting to me participate in this sponsored trip. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.